115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Seeing Disability in the 21st-Century American Short Story

Shannon Walton, University of Michigan

When we read a story like “Ironhead,” at what point do we know that the boy’s visible difference—having a household iron for a head—is a metaphor for a disability? Consequently, at what point in the story do we get a sense of the specific disability it represents? And, when do we begin to question this sense and the knowledge that informs it? This paper looks at short stories written in the 21st century by authors like Abby Geni, Aimee Bender, and George Saunders to discover how disability emerges from images and narratives of difference and distress.

Proposal: 

When we read a story like Aimee Bender’s “Ironhead,” at what point do we know that the young boy’s visible difference—having a household iron for a head—is a metaphor for a disability? Consequently, at what point in the story do we get a sense of the specific disability it represents? And, because it is inevitable, when do we begin to question this sense and the knowledge that informs it? In this paper, I survey short stories written in the 21st century by authors like Abby Geni, Aimee Bender, and George Saunders to discover how disability emerges from images and narratives of difference and distress, and to what ends. Approaching these stories from a feminist disability studies perspective, I think about the ways in which gender, race, sexuality, and social class inform our understanding of characters like Geni’s Mara—an aquarist who doesn’t realize the extent of her despair until she causes an octopus to turn a furious shade of red upon entering his tank. Finally, drawing on the work of theorists like Alison Kafer and Ellen Samuels, I look at scenes of identification, recognition, and erasure, contemplating the relationship between disability and visuality, questioning the implications of the term “invisible disability,” and asking how these stories help us to see disability differently.